TIME Innovation

See The Incredibly Goofy Evolution of Virtual Reality Headsets

Inventors have been experimenting with virtual reality headsets in a variety of sometimes wacky ways, from virtual roller coasters to virtual surgery

TIME Innovation

Here’s What It’s Like to Use Microsoft’s Amazing New Holographic Headset

HoloLens
Windows

The coolest new product to come out of Microsoft in decades, the HoloLens, can overlay 3-D images on real-world surroundings, mixing of fantasy and reality

After tickling pint-sized sheep across a coffee table, blowing a holographic hole through a wall and touring the surface of Mars, it seems safe to say that Microsoft’s newly unveiled headset, the HoloLens, marks a major leap forward in the field of virtual reality.

Microsoft unveiled the HoloLens during a Windows 10 press conference at its Redmond, Washington headquarters on Wednesday. Rather than immerse the user in a digital fantasy world, like the Oculus Rift, the HoloLens overlays 3-D images on top of real-world surroundings, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

No recording devices were allowed into the demonstration rooms, which were hidden beneath the ground floor of Microsoft’s Visitor Center and secured behind locked doors. Unlike the sleek, donut-shaped headset unveiled on stage, the prototypes in the demonstration were skeletal contraptions that wrapped around the cranium and included a small computer slung around the neck. The weight was easy to ignore once the technicians fired up a game of Minecraft and the game’s fantasy world sprawled out over real world living room furniture.

As the headset’s spatial sensors scanned their surroundings, a pulse of blue light passed over the tabletop and slipped around the corners. Suddenly a slightly translucent image of a castle rose from the tabletop. Beneath it, a pool of blue water was spread across the floor and thumb-sized sheep grazed at the water’s edge. The images are projected directly into the user’s eye and precisely turn with the user’s movements.

While the images appear to fade away at the periphery, a turn of the head quickly fills in the blank with new terrain. Users can interact with their surroundings by training their eyes on any object of interest, holding out a pointer finger and “air tapping” it with a downward flick. Air tap a holographic shovel, for instance, and it punches a hole through the coffee table. A soft beam of light passes through the opening and casts a bright patch on the floor.

The holes can offer keyhole glimpses into new terrains. Beneath the side table was a lake of lava. After a blowing a hole through the wall, a passageway to a cave opened, complete with bats flitting back out towards the user. But the highlight of the demonstration had to be the bizarre-yet-satisfying pleasure of tickling miniature sheep across a table, and watching one poor creature take a lemming-like leap over the table’s edge.

The second demonstration suspended a Skype video screen in mid-air. The caller, a Microsoft engineer, shared my view on her screen and directed me toward a scattering of tools. She then guided me through a real world installation of a light switch, with her drawing holographic arrows at the tools I needed each step of the way. It worked, and it showcased the HoloLens ability to stick an expert into a novice’s field of vision, instantly eliminating the skills gap.

A third demonstration projected photographic landscapes of Mars, snapped by NASA’s mars rover, in a surprisingly crisp image of its cracked and rocky surface. Microsoft has partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to simulate exploratory missions on Mars. A real-world monitor showed the two-dimensional landscape on a conventional screen, but pull the mouse cursor beyond the screen’s edge and it floats seamlessly into the 3-dimensional landscape, where a mouse click can plant a holographic flag into the ground.

A final demonstration showed how models can be constructed in space, by pinching pre-fabricated shapes, rotating them and gluing them together. A “perfect print preview for 3-D printing,” explained a Microsoft engineer as a coworker put the finishing touches on a koala wearing a space helmet. Moments later they distributed 3-D printed models of the same koala in a goodie bag.

To be sure, these were highly stage managed interactions with the HoloLens, and it remains to be seen how it will fare for the average consumer. When that will happen remains an open question. The HoloLens has been under development for at least five years, and its lead inventor, Alex Kipman, said the product would release sometime “within the Windows 10 timeframe,” which could mean a matter of years.

Still, the technology is mind-bendingly cool. If the experiences in the demonstration rooms can be carried over into the real world, Microsoft may have a shot at reclaiming the mobile market, leapfrogging over the current jumble of smartphones, tablets and phablets, and into the next generation of augmented reality.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. On the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, political strife is still the greatest obstacle to recovery.

By Jacqueline Charles in the Miami Herald

2. The U.S. uses economic sanctions because they don’t require a global coalition to work. But they may inflict damage beyond the intended target.

By Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times

3. With deepening partisanship becoming the norm, don’t look to the states for new ideas.

By Aaron Chatterji in the New York Times

4. Juries could use virtual reality headsets to ‘visit’ crime scenes.

By Jessica Hamzelou in New Scientist

5. A new waterproof solar lantern is helping reduce deaths from burning fuel indoors for the world’s 1.2 billion living without electric light.

By Michael Zelenko in the Verge

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME ces 2015

These New Headphones Are Hiding an Amazing Secret

Avegant

Proof virtual reality doesn't have to make you look like a massive nerd

Startup Avegant unveiled its latest prototype of a virtual reality headset at the Consumer Electronics Show Wednesday, and it proves the words “stylish virtual reality goggles” do not have to be an oxymoron.

The headset, called Glyph, looks like an ordinary pair of noise-canceling headphones, only with two eye holes tucked discreetly underneath the headband.

That discretion could make all of the difference for shoppers who want an immersive video experience without having to immerse their heads in a clunky contraption. “It can’t look like I’m wearing a pope hat,” Avegant’s CTO Allan Evans said in an interview with Re/code.

Flip the Glyph’s headband down in front of the eyes and 2 million micro-mirrors will project light from an image directly onto the retina. Glyph’s designers say it mimics the experience of sitting in a darkened movie theater at a reasonable distance from the screen, making it uniquely suited for long haul flights, though it might still draw stares from neighbors unaccustomed to seeing headphones strapped across the face (see demonstration video below).

The Glyph is slated to go on sale in Autumn 2015, Re/code reports, for $599.

TIME Media

This Is the Craziest New Feature YouTube Has Added in Years

Gangnam Style Psy Breaks YouTube Counter
South Korean singer Park Jae-Sang, also known as Psy, speaks during a press conference after returning from a US trip, in Seoul on September 25, 2012. Kim Jae-Hwan—AFP/Getty Images

A totally new way to watch stuff may be on its way

Online video is about to become a lot more immersive. YouTube has plans to add 360-degree videos in the coming weeks, according to Gizmodo. The Google-owned video site isn’t yet divulging details on how the videos will work, but 360-degree videos on other sites operate similarly to panoramic photographs, allowing the user to click and drag across an image to pivot the camera angle as the video plays.

No word yet on whether this new feature will be compatible with the growing number of virtual reality devices headed to market. Google has its own low-tech VR device called Google Cardboard that could help YouTube’s 360-degree videos spring to life.

[Gizmodo]

TIME ces 2015

Here’s the $200 Competitor Oculus Should Worry About

Razer

You can even build one yourself if you're so inclined

Imagine a world in which virtual reality standards weren’t dominated by mega-billions corporations with sometimes controversial agendas. It’s not the world we live in, but PC peripheral-maker Razer wants us nudge us in that direction with something it’s dubbed OSVR, or open-source virtual reality.

On paper, OSVR is just what it sounds like: an idea for a standard that’s still just a proposition. Razer says it wants to “push the the VR gaming experience forward,” meaning it wants to plant its flag on challenge that matters most when you’re after winning hearts and wallets by delivering experiences and not just overhyped promises: developer support.

Razer

Here’s Razer’s take:

OSVR stands for Open Source Virtual Reality. It is an ecosystem designed from the ground up to set an open standard for Virtual Reality input devices, games and output with the sole goal of providing the best possible game experience in the Virtual Reality space. Supported by Industry Leaders and focused on gaming, the OSVR framework rallies gamers worldwide together to push the boundaries of VR-Gaming.

Razer’s basically pitching OSVR as an initiative to get the ball rolling on the software side, the idea being to support a flourishing ecology of hardware and software components in a harmonious VR ecosystem that even works hand in glove with Oculus Rift. If Oculus wants to be the iOS of VR, Razer’s positioning OSVR to be the Android.

Razer

If Razer’s pitch were just another rhetorical PR flourish, you might write it off as wishful thinking from a niche power player. But Razer appears to be doubling down with what it’s calling its OSVR Hacker Dev Kit, a bona fide wraparound VR headset accompanied by open-source software “that enables programming for any variety of VR technology.” What’s more, priced to move at $200, it could be $100 less expensive than Oculus’ Rift when it ships this year in June.

On paper, the headset sounds compelling: Razer claims it’s managed to work out an optics solution that reduced distortion to less than 13%, providing what the company calls “an almost perfect image.” You’ll view that image through a 5.5-inch 1920 by 1080 panel with a 100-degree field of view running at 60Hz (thus 60 frames per second)—a step down from the Oculus Rift DK2’s 75Hz. Standard features like an accelerometer, compass and gyroscope are present, but lacks positional tracking hardware (the DK2 has this), though you could remedy this with a hardware plugin.

Razer

Want to build one yourself? In keeping with open-source principles, Razer says it’ll support that, too, allowing intrepid DIY’ers to freely download the device’s 3D files, to be printed and assembled into a working headset. (In fact, the plans are available for request from osvr.com right now.)

Note that Razer isn’t the first to pose an open-source VR standard: a group called the Immersive Technology Alliance announced yesterday that it, too, wants to see open-source standards emerge for VR and beyond–the ITA’s scope sounds like it may be broader, encompassing everything from VR devices to related peripherals like cameras, sensors, phones, motion controls and so forth, though as noted by Tom’s Hardware, the ITA, like Razer, intends any such standard to be complementary to what Facebook and Oculus VR are up to, not adversarial.

TIME Gadgets

Oculus Just Bought 2 Amazing Companies to Complete Its Virtual Reality Vision

An attendee wears an Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted display at the 2014 International CES, January 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

Including a company that makes hand-tracking tech

Virtual reality headset company Oculus VR announced Dec. 11 two acquisitions that should help the company move towards a commercial launch: Nimble VR, which makes hand-tracking technology, and 13th Lab, a 3D modeling firm.

In practical terms, Nimble VR could help add something to virtual reality (VR) that’s been missing from most experiences so far: Your hands, which are surprisingly difficult to render realistically in VR. 13th Lab, meanwhile, could help Oculus build virtual reality experiences based on real-world environments, “like visiting a one-to-one 3D model of the pyramids in Egypt or the Roman Colosseum,” as Oculus’ blog post puts it.

Oculus’ two new acquisitions come as the company comes ever closer to a commercial launch of its Rift headset. While Oculus hasn’t officially announced a release date, many in the virtual reality community believe its first consumer device will hit shelves sometime in 2015.

Oculus has sold two headsets so far, the DK1 and DK2, though both are aimed at developers and early adopters rather than a mass consumer audience. The company has for several months been offering demos of its newest virtual reality headset, the Crescent Bay prototype, which offers a vastly improved experience over its previous offerings.

 

TIME Virtual Reality

Samsung’s Virtual Reality Headset Just Went On Sale

Samsung Gear VR
A visitor tries out Gear VR virtual reality goggles amd headphones at the Samsung stand at the 2014 IFA home electronics and appliances trade fair on September 5, 2014 in Berlin. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Samsung’s virtual reality headset, the Gear VR Innovator Edition, popped up on the company’s online store Monday for $199.99.

The Gear VR is a mobile virtual reality unit — it uses a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 as its screen, which isn’t included in the headset’s price. It advertises a full 360-degree virtual reality experience and is powered by software from Oculus VR, the virtual reality company behind the Oculus Rift. Oculus and Samsung’s virtual reality efforts have long been intertwined, with Oculus using Samsung panels for its own VR headsets.

It’s important to note that the Gear VR Innovator Edition is aptly named: While anybody can go ahead and buy Samsung’s new headset, it’s aimed at early adopters moreso than the general public. Still, initial reactions to the Gear VR have been positive, so if you’re itching for an affordable virtual reality fix (assuming you’ve already got the Note 4) it may be a good buy.

MONEY stocks

Virtual Reality Makes Investing — Yes, Investing — Dangerously Fun

StockCity
StockCity from FidelityLabs

A new virtual reality tool from Fidelity makes navigating the stock market feel like a game—for better or worse.

There’s no question: Strapping on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and exploring StockCity, Fidelity’s new tool for investors, is oddly thrilling.

Admittedly, the fun may have more to do with the immersive experience of this 3D technology—with goggles that seamlessly shift your perspective as you tilt your head—than with the subject matter.

But I found it surprisingly easy to buy into the metaphor: As you glide through the virtual city that you’ve designed, buildings represent the stocks or ETFs in your portfolio, the weather represents the day’s market performance, and red and green rooftops tell you whether a stock is down or up for the day. Who wants to be a measly portfolio owner when you can instead be the ruler of a dynamic metropolis—a living, breathing personal economy?

Of course, there are serious limits to the tool in its current form. The height of a building represents its closing price on the previous day and the width the trading volume, which tell you nothing about, say, the stock’s historical performance or valuation—let alone whether it’s actually a good investment.

And, unless you’re a reporter like me or one of the 50,000 developers currently in possession of an Oculus Rift, you’re limited to playing with the less exciting 2D version of the program on your monitor (see a video preview below)—at least until a consumer version of the headset comes out in a few months, priced between $200 and $400.

Those flaws notwithstanding, if this technology makes the “gamification” of investing genuinely fun and appealing, that could be big deal. It could be used to better educate the public about the stock market and investing in general.

But it also raises a big question: Should investing be turned into a game, like fantasy sports?

There are dangers inherent in ostensibly educational games like Fidelity’s existing Beat the Benchmark tool, which teaches investing terms and demonstrates how different asset allocations have performed over various time periods. If you beat your benchmark, after all, what have you learned? A lot of research suggests that winning at investing tends to teach people the wrong lesson.

“Investors think that good returns originate from their investment skills, while for bad returns they blame the market,” writes Thomas Post, a finance professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and author of one recent study on the subject.

In reality, great performance in the stock market tends to depend more on luck than skill, even for the most expert investors. That’s why most people are best off putting their money into passive index funds and seldom trading. It also means there’s not a lot of value in watching the real-time performance of your stocks—in any number of dimensions.

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